Some so-and-so whom Barry “the Hatchet” Vagnoni barely remembered called him up last week, supposedly to catch up on old times.
The Hatchet’s never been more focused, though, on his destiny — to throw the biggest Super Bowl party Berks County has ever seen — and he knew that this shmoe from a men’s softball league way back when was sniffing around for an invite.
No dice, the Hatchet said.
“He acted like he was really offended,” Vagnoni said Thursday morning. “He cussed me out and hung up on me.”
Vagnoni is the Pope of Philadelphia Eagles fandom, and the 2,000-square-foot “Locker Room” he built behind his home in Reading is nothing less than a cathedral to the team. You might be thinking, “Oh, cool, another story about a guy who loves the Eagles. Nice man cave.” But that’s like looking at postcards of the Grand Canyon and thinking you’ve got a handle on it.
The idea for the Locker Room was born on a restless night in Reading, when Vagnoni, who had recently retired from the wholesale restaurant-supply business, turned on the movie Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner, inspired by ghosts, builds a baseball diamond in a cornfield. Up until that moment, Vagnoni’s plan was to build a vacation home in Ocala, Fla., with his wife, Dawn. They’d bet the horses, hit the beaches, and live the snowbird life.
But the Birds here at home called out to the Hatchet that night: Build a basilica with a 35-foot bar rescued from a speakeasy, put up a 16-foot-wide television, and cram every square inch with dozens of jerseys and helmets and autographed footballs, turf and chairs from Veterans Stadium, and the fans will come.
“I waited until my wife was in a real good mood to tell her,” he said. “She’s crazy, too, but not as nuts as I am.”
Vagnoni wouldn’t say how much it all cost, to preserve his marriage.
Construction began after the Eagles lost to New England in the Super Bowl in February 2005. He had a heart attack later that year, which he blames on Terrell Owens, but he said he has missed only one game at the Locker Room, when his father-in-law died. Now in its 13th year, the room has but one purpose, a purity that the casual sports fan might not comprehend. Vagnoni doesn’t host college bowl games there, or the World Series. He has never even had a Super Bowl party before, and doesn’t root for other teams when the Eagles bow out of the playoffs.
The Locker Room simply shuts down, like an amusement park in winter.
“We don’t do the preseason,” he said.
When the Eagles trounced the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game last month, Vagnoni said, about 150 people showed up, mostly friends and family and others who have endeared themselves to him, contractors and flooring guys and the chicken wing man. Vagnoni said he’s trying to keep Sunday’s party around the same size, but is having to be stingy, like the Eagles defense.
“These people are killing me,” he said. “I’m the most popular guy in Berks County.”
The Locker Room has strict but simple rules. Everyone in attendance must have a laminated season pass, approved by Vagnoni, the commissioner, and grandsons Griffin and Nicholas Klee, his co-commissioners. Only Eagles fans are allowed, and they must wear team gear. There’s no cursing. And don’t try to sneak in a friend without asking first. Many former players have given him mementos, but his prized possessions are the collages of guests who’ve come and gone. The easiest way to get into the Locker Room is through birth, and the Vagnoni family tree bears only Eagles fans.
Once, a Dallas fan came to the Locker Room, hiding his allegiance like a wire under an Eagles shirt. He took the Birds shirt off after the game, as a gag, and may have gone fishing the way Fredo did.
“A couple of my cousins didn’t like that,” Vagnoni said. “No one’s seen him since.”
Vagnoni has invited his cardiologist to the Super Bowl party, as a friend, but also just in case. Admittedly, Vagnoni could use a shrink, too. On Thursday, he wore a hat that looked like an old poodle dyed green, a Nick Foles jersey atop shoulder pads, and eye black.
“Oh, yeah, I’m nuts,” he said, taking a seat on the bleachers he had built next to the lockers.
Dr. Louis Borgatta isn’t sure whether a win or a loss would be worse for Vagnoni’s ticker.
“Obviously, he’s a fanatic,” Borgatta said Thursday.
Vagnoni does not divulge his age, describing himself as “ageless.” He is 5 feet, 4 inches tall “with heels on” but got his nickname on the basketball court. He and his brother, Dave, were playing against two “young punks,” one of whom kept driving through the lane, scoring at will and jawing at him. This guy had to go.
“I undercut that sucker so bad, he somersaulted. It would have got a 10 in the Olympics,” Vagnoni said. “He busted his glasses, his nose, his knees were all scraped up, and my brother Dave says, ‘Man, that’s a real hatchet job. Barry, you are the Hatchet.'”
Dave Vagnoni has a smaller Super Bowl party down the street. Maybe 75 people.
There are donation jars but no fee for the Hatchet’s party. No one has to bring anything, though it would probably be a good bet to wear sweatpants and schedule an appointment with your own cardiologist ahead of time.
“We’re not talking chips and pretzels,” he said, his hands waving over four Eagles crock pots. “Pulled pork, desserts that are unbelievable, and outside the wing man comes here every game and makes at least 50 pounds of buffalo wings.”
There may be a band. There will be an airbrush technician spraying faces.
When asked what he does during the games, Vagnoni hustled up to a stage and began pounding a drum. He said his job is to “get the people jacked up.” The video below explains what that means.
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The Locker Room is more than a big building filled with Eagles memorabilia. It has its own ghostly inspiration from seasons past. In 1960, Vagnoni watched the Eagles win the NFL Championship on a tiny black-and-white television with his father, a musician named Shorty Long, who played with Elvis and who died in 1991.
Vagnoni has waited most of his life to share that feeling again, with his children and grandchildren, and with his father, who he’ll think about when he takes his seat in an oversize Eagles helmet-turned-chair.
“We cried when it happened,” the Hatchet said of that 1960 game. “When this game starts and this place is filled up, I’m going to say a little prayer to my father. He’ll be here, too.”